Humphrey Bogart was my favorite actor when I was a kid growing up in the 1960s. I had a big poster of him from “Casablanca” taped to my bedroom wall, and I would unfailingly set my alarm clock to catch his old movies on late-night television. He was a tough guy – a prerequisite in a movie star for me in those days. It wasn’t until later that I discovered he came from a moneyed family and attended a ritzy prep school. And what kind of name for a tough guy is “Humphrey” anyway? It is apparently a myth, however, that Bogie, in a bit role on Broadway, spoke the line “Tennis, anyone?” Whew!
Bogart is still my favorite actor, which is why I wanted to offer him up this week for some much-needed movie balm. The truth is, he was always much more than a tough guy in the movies, even when he was playing a tough guy, which was often. His gangsters and private detectives and outlaws were never routine: They had a sly knowingness, a dark wit, even a sadness. His first great performance was in Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra” in 1941, where, opposite Ida Lupino, he played Roy Earle, a soulful gangster past his prime. The performance was unlike anything the crime genre had featured before. Later that year he appeared as Sam Spade in his big breakthrough, “The Maltese Falcon,” inaugurating a long and celebrated collaboration with its writer-director, John Huston.
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For those who think Bogart lacked versatility, I recommend two of his best Huston films, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen.” The roles could not be further apart.
“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”
In “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), one of the greatest American movies ever made, Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, one of a trio of prospectors – the others are played by Tim Holt and, indelibly, John’s father, Walter Huston – who are torn apart by greed after discovering gold in the Mexican mountains. There was often a slightly menacing edge to even Bogart’s most sympathetic characters – think of Rick in “Casablanca.” In “Sierra Madre,” Bogart gives a classic portrayal of mounting paranoia that presaged his work as Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny.” When Bogart boasts that “Nobody puts one over on Fred C. Dobbs,” his self-delusion crackles. (Unrated)
“The African Queen”
As Charlie Allnutt, the scruffy tramp steamer captain in “The African Queen” (1951), Bogart is playing opposite Katharine Hepburn’s Rose, a priggish British spinster missionary with whom he escapes downriver from the Germans in the run-up to World War I. Thrown together by fate, Charlie and Rose are perhaps the greatest odd couple in movie history. She can barely tolerate this cigar-chomping river rat – a tipoff, of course, that they are made for each other. Bogart is at his funniest in this film. (He won the Oscar for best actor.) Because he is a total innocent, Charlie’s slovenly cluelessness is supremely endearing. He just wants to do right by “Rosie,” and when she finally comes around, it’s as if the skies parted. Hepburn is at her comic best here, too. Reportedly, while on location in Africa, she had big trouble figuring out how to play the character. Finally Huston told her to play Rosie as if she were Eleanor Roosevelt, and from then on it was literally smooth sailing. Hepburn would later say it was the best piece of direction she ever got. (Rated PG)
“The Big Sleep”
Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” (1946) has Bogart in one of his most entertainingly iconic performances as Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe. It was his second film playing opposite Lauren Bacall – the first was “To Have and Have Not” two years earlier – and the smoke coming off the screen isn’t only from cigarettes. (They were married six months after shooting ended.) The convoluted plot for this movie makes very little sense. When Hawks and his co-screenwriters (one of whom was William Faulkner) asked Chandler for clarification, he apparently wasn’t much help. But what “The Big Sleep” demonstrates is that if a movie is as endlessly enjoyable as this one, who needs sense? Bogie and Bacall had a logic all their own. (Unrated)
These films are available to rent on Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes.